Hello best health seekers!
Do you read food labels and check the ingredient list? We’re used to seeing salt (sodium chloride) on labels as a preservative or flavor enhancer. It’s also in our shakers on the table or by our stove. However, have you ever come across the ubiquitous calcium chloride on the labels of your canned or frozen goods and wondered “What the heck is calcium chloride and why is it in my food?” You’ll most often discover it in canned vegetables, beans and soups to replace salt though it’s in more foods than that. But what and where is it? And should we care?
We should definitely care.
A $2.6 Billion Industry
Let’s cut to the chase, then unpack everything.
Show me the money: The global calcium chloride industry is shortly set to grow into a $2.6 billion market. An industry report by Grand View Research notes “increasing usage of calcium chloride as a food preservative in the food processing industry” and potential new applications in agricultural segments are “expected to spur the market growth in the next six years.” Another industry report comments, “busy lifestyles and rising disposable incomes have led to a surge in the demand for ready-to-cook and -eat food products across the globe, thereby maintaining the growth prospects of the calcium chloride market.”
Show me the health impact: There’s definitely money to be made from calcium chloride but there is also a health cost you have to look in industry reports to find since your regular health and fitness websites don’t cite it so clearly. According to the same report above by Grand View Research, too much consumption of calcium chloride causes “ill effects including kidney stones, bone & joint pain, coma, and irregular heart beat” that might limit growth of the food market (my emphasis added).
Hold up. What?
Plenty of other troubling statements exist regarding ingesting calcium chloride but more on that later. Suffice it to say the industry is highly aware of health problems from consuming calcium chloride in its food products. Now let’s unpack things to understand what calcium chloride is, where it’s used so you can avoid it, and its health implications.
What Calcium Chloride Is
Calcium chloride is a salt composed of calcium and chloride (chemically known as CaCl2). It takes the form of a colorless liquid or whitish granules, powders and flakes. It tastes salty but is odorless. Because it melts ice by generating heat as it dissolves, calcium chloride is most commonly used for de-icing anything from your walkways to roads and vehicles. Since it is a salt, it has many other applications including water treatment, resurfacing roads, concrete, oil and gas for transportation, medicine, agricultural cultivation and yes, food.
Where does it come from? Our table salt (sodium chloride) is abundantly found in nature but though calcium chloride does occur in some minerals, it is very rare. Mostly it’s found in ocean brine and limestone but unlike with our table salt, it’s produced en mass through chemical processes, usually as a byproduct of making soda bicarbonate from brine and limestone. In other words, you can’t just go find it lying around in nature like with our everyday salt which we humans have been mining or harvesting for thousands of years.
Calcium Chloride as a Common Food Additive and Preservative
The food market for calcium chloride is widespread and growing. In food it’s an additive for use as a stabilizer, firming agent, and thickener. This means calcium chloride helps keep your foods firm rather than going soft because of food processing. The food industry has found many uses for this chemical:
- As a thickener to help form solid cheese and tofu
- As a dough-strengthening and -raising agent
- To preserves frozen food and canned fruit and vegetables
- As a meat tenderizer
- To keep your packaged foods dry, as it can absorb a lot of moisture
- If sprayed on live crops and fresh produce, it acts as a preservative by maintaining the calcium content of your fruits or vegetables. This helps maintain cellular structure and crispness, a useful trait that sees calcium chloride used in pickling
- In brewing beer
- Since it’s an electrolyte, it’s found in some sports drinks
Then there are the dubious health claims made by the industry. Food companies often use calcium chloride in place of sodium chloride (table salt) to lower the sodium content of food items. This gives consumers the illusion that the item is low in salt despite calcium chloride itself being a salt and having some similar effects as sodium chloride in the body plus unique ones but more on that later.
As you can see, calcium chloride is a useful chemical in the processed food industry and even in the food cultivation process.
Health Dangers of Calcium Chloride
Table salt (sodium chloride) is pretty safe. If you knock it over and get it on your skin, it’s harmless. Though it is an essential mineral for our health, too much in our bodies is generally recognized as a bad thing. Calcium chloride, however, isn’t something you want to handle like you would a shaker of table salt despite the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration denotes calcium chloride as generally recognized as safe (GRAS).
Remember that troubling statement by industry insiders – the one that said too much consumption of calcium chloride causes “ill effects including kidney stones, bone & joint pain, coma, and irregular heart beat” that might limit growth in the food market? Keep that in mind as you read on.
Calcium chloride clearly can cause health problems. Here are more ill-health effects.
- Because this chemical operates by releasing heat in contact with water, calcium chloride can burn your skin, eyes or other bodily tissues. Internally it can do the same thing. It can cause irritation of your digestive or respiratory tracts and may trigger asthma.
- People who handle calcium chloride have to take precautions as it can cause gastrointestinal issues if ingested, skin reactions if touched, and lung damage if inhaled.
- Calcium chloride can cause a burning pain in the stomach, nausea and vomiting if ingested, according to the International Programme on Chemical Safety, or IPCS (my emphasis added). To avoid ingestion, the IPCS recommends you do not eat, drink or smoke while working with calcium chloride. If you accidentally ingest calcium chloride, drink plenty of water and contact a physician immediately.
Many warnings regarding calcium chloride are aimed primarily at those who handle the chemical in food processing or other industries. If it’s problematic to handle, what will it do to us through our foods? That insider report by Grand View Research about health dangers limiting market growth in the food processing industry raises important questions, particularly in light of known health problems from consumption the report cites and those caused from ingesting the chemical during handling, among the other dangers and uses in medical applications not discussed in this article.
As a Livestrong.com article notes, “Although it is generally considered safe for humans to handle, some dangers exist if too much enters the body.” The problem is we don’t exactly know how much is too much and worse, we don’t know how much we’re ingesting given its widespread uses in the food industry, few of which require labeling. We only notice it when it appears on food labels and even there we don’t know its quantities.
Processed foods, where calcium chloride is widely used, make up 66% of the American diet. As industry research notes, ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat food products are a growing market segment for calcium chloride. This means calcium chloride use will only expand. Plus the industry is always looking for new applications.
Bait and Switch – Dubious Health Claims
Humans are chemical beings. We need a wide assortments of nutrients to function in good health. Some of those include sodium, calcium, chloride and electrolytes.
- Calcium and sodium are important physiologically for healthy nerves and muscles. A lack of them can reduce the signals going from your brain to your muscles. As a result muscles can become weak and your heart may beat irregularly.
- Calcium helps with healthy bones.
- Chloride ions regulate the pH balance of the blood and help to control your body fluid levels. Dehydration can lead to chloride loss.
- Electrolytes are minerals with an electrical charge and are vital to functions in your body.
Because calcium chloride breaks down into calcium and chloride ions in your body, this is used as an argument that it is good for us because it provides two essential nutrients – calcium and chloride. Doesn’t it sound nice to hear that when added, calcium chloride slightly increases the calcium content of food? Or it would if you didn’t know of the health dangers, including those cited by industry insiders as risks to their growing multibillion dollar market. Focusing on a single chemical, even an essential one, is a poor and sometimes dangerous way of going about nutrition. Our bodies are ecosystems and the chemicals in our food interact with each other and our systems in a complex manner.
That doesn’t stop the food industry from marketing to us in misleading ways to sell us products we don’t need and which may in fact be harmful for us.
For example, in the same way “sugar-free” products often contain aspartame, “low sodium” products often contain calcium chloride.
Take this can of “Simply Balanced™ No Salt Added Organic Diced Tomatoes” offered by Target. From the product detail page:
- Diced tomatoes are great for homemade salsa, marinara and so much more
- No salt added keeps it healthier
- Certified organic
ORGANIC TOMATOES, ORGANIC TOMATO JUICE, CALCIUM CHLORIDE, CITRIC ACID. (my emphasis added)
Daily recommended serving of sodium: 5mg or 0%
This is just one example among many so I’m not picking on Target but it illustrates a marketing tactic few people notice. Most consumers will just read “organic” and “no salt added” and assume this is really healthy stuff. They will not know that calcium chloride is in fact a salt, one produced not naturally but by chemical processes, with health effects on the body.
But wait, it’s in water and sports drinks too. Check out this BodyArmor SuperWater, “A water designed by athletes for athletes” offered at grocery stores and elsewhere. From its Amazon detail page:
Superwater from Body Armor is great Electrolytes, High performance pH in a Wide-mouth bottle. Helps maintain fluid balance, especially after a tough workout. Our hard earned sweat contains both water and electrolytes, which is why rehydration is so important. Additionally, our bodies need electrolytes to help with muscle contraction, nerve signaling, bone health and to prevent muscle cramping. The pH in BODYARMOR Water is naturally alkaline and formulated to be the best tasting, hydrating water for the athlete of all ages and abilities.
Ingredients: Reverse Osmosis Water, Potassium Biocarbonate, Calcium Chloride, and Magnesium Chloride. (my emphasis added)
Companies are using aspects of the chemical calcium chloride, such as its function as an electrolyte, to sell you dubiously beneficial products. Guess what? Sodium chloride (table salt) is also an electrolyte with these same benefits but marketers know that listing “salt” as an ingredient won’t fly with consumers, even if it is chemically a “strong electrolyte.”
Finally, calcium chloride often but not always replaces “salt” on the ingredient list for low-priced (and generally lower quality) canned items. Be on particular guard when you see “no salt added” or “low sodium” claims on the packaging. Remember, it’s regularly used in ready-to-cook or ready-to-eat meals so check the ingredients on deli, frozen foods, and other food labels.
Take away: Always check the ingredients list and be especially dubious of health claims such as “low sodium” or “no salt added” or “electrolytes”.
The Bottom Line
Salt (sodium chloride) is the original natural preservative and flavor enhancer. Why replace it? We have with calcium chloride, a salt formed from chemical processes as a byproduct of making soda bicarbonate. Not only does calcium chloride show up in “low sodium” and “no salt” packaged food products, the industry uses it across the spectrum of food production from growing, harvesting, freezing, and food processing to cheese making and beer brewing.
And it’s looking for new applications all the time.
The FDA may say that calcium chloride is generally safe for consumption but remember what Grand View Research said in its report for industry insiders when it noted “increasing usage of calcium chloride as a food preservative in the food processing industry is expected to spur the market growth in the next six years. However, on the other hand, ill effects including kidney stones, bone & joint pain, coma, and irregular heart beat caused because of too much consumption of calcium chloride are likely to limit the growth of the global calcium chloride market.” (My emphasis added) Limitations are overstated here as later reports only document a continually growing market.
Maybe in small doses this stuff might be safe but we’re consuming it everywhere in our highly processed food culture. The global calcium chloride industry is an almost $2.6 billion market. Our busy lifestyles and rising disposable incomes have led to a surge in demand for ready-to-cook and -eat food products that will only maintain and grow the calcium chloride market.
Bottom line: calcium chloride with its salty flavor and multiple uses makes it easier and cheaper for the food industry to sell you food products and make billions. They’re looking out for their bottom line, not your health.
Pro tip: A cheaper, more chemical-sounding ingredient should always trigger your investigative senses. Try not to get paranoid though. After all, dihydrogen monoxide sounds pretty ominous until you realize that’s just another way of reading H2O or water. Thing is, the food industry never lists dihydrogen monoxide on its labeling. If an ingredient only has a chemical name rather than something more common like water or salt, my general rule of thumb is to avoid it. You should too.
The Road to Real Health
Why replace salt (sodium chloride), a naturally occurring mineral, with a chemical that has to be made as a byproduct of chemical processes in the first place? To you, which intuitively sounds healthier? Unfortunately, our eating habits are so out of whack we don’t know what’s food anymore. We want to keep eating processed foods despite their contribution to sliding health statistics so the food industry keeps finding new ways of packaging it to make it seem healthy or healthier. But processed food isn’t healthy and you can’t dress it up to make it so.
The best sources and amounts for all these nutrients – calcium, chloride, sodium, electrolytes – are from whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables as they come with a cocktail of nutrients, fiber, and live enzymes that work together in ways more balanced than by ingesting a single added chemical. They will regulate sodium, calcium, chloride and electrolyte levels far better than anything you’ll find on any shelf outside the produce aisle. They’ll also contain a host of other vitamins, minerals and nutrients that we need.
Learn what a whole foods diet really means, then you won’t have to worry about what’s in your food (though you might have to still worry about how it’s grown and shipped).
Like this article? Share it so that others can learn these health secrets and start living their best lives now.
“Calcium Chloride Market Size, Share, Trends, Growth, Export Value, Volume & Trade, Sales, Pricing Forecast,” Transparency Market Research press release, October 2018, https://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/pressrelease/calcium-chloride-market.htm.
Calcium Chloride Market Size, Application Analysis, Regional Outlook, Competitive Strategies And Forecasts, 2014 To 2020, Grand View Research report summary, https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/calcium-chloride-market.
“How Does Calcium Chloride Work?”, Deirdre Denholm, Livestrong.com, https://www.livestrong.com/article/457871-how-does-calcium-chloride-work/
“Calcium Chloride”, CDC website, https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ipcsneng/neng1184.html
“What Are the Dangers of Calcium Chloride As a Food Additive?”, Jessica Benzaquen, Livestrong.com, October 3, 2017, https://www.livestrong.com/article/299977-what-are-the-dangers-of-calcium-chloride-as-a-food-additive/
“What Are the Dangers of Calcium Chloride?”, A.L. Kennedy, Livestrong.com, https://www.livestrong.com/article/253218-what-are-the-dangers-of-calcium-chloride/
“Calcium Chloride”, Foodconstrued.com, http://foodconstrued.com/2013/02/calcium-chloride/
Calcium Chloride, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcium_chloride
“Health Risks and Disease Related to Salt and Sodium”, Harvard University, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/salt-and-sodium/sodium-health-risks-and-disease/